Author: Anand Neelakantan
Publisher: Leadstart Publications
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Revisionist retellings of the Mahabharata are the flavor of the season. After Palace of Illusions which told the story from Draupadi’s perspective, and Karna’s Wife which gave Karna’s (fictional) wife’s take on it, we have Ajaya, Epic of the Kaurava Clan by Anand Neelakantan. The first book in the two-part series is called Roll of the Dice.
At the outset, the author explains his aim in plain terms; he is here to tell the Kaurava version of the well-known epic. His hero is Suyodhana, eldest of the Kauravas, wrongly maligned by Pandava propaganda, so much so that even his name has been twisted into a mockery of himself – Duryodhana.
In the traditional version, the Pandavas are the upholders of dharma. In Neelakantan’s retelling, the ‘dharma’ of the Pandavas is not about ‘duty’ or ‘justice’ – it is actually about rigidly and unquestioningly following caste rules. What the Pandavas stand for is a society rife with caste-based discrimination, where merit has no value. This is the ‘dharma’ they wish to uphold. Their antagonists, on the other hand, are the egalitarian Kauravas, represented mainly by Suyodhana, who believes in equality, personal merit and accomplishments, charity towards the poor etc.
This is an explosive idea, and could have been used to much effect. Unfortunately, Suyodhana the hero fails to capture the reader’s empathy. In spite of repeated references about him ‘going to visit the poor in his kingdom’ every 20 pages or so, the attempt to present him as a combination of social reformer-Gautama Buddha-animal rights activist does not work. In fact, the debate on ‘whose dharma is it’ would have been better served if someone from the marginalized sections of society were the protagonist of the book. Karna the charioteer’s son, Eklavya the tribal, Jara the lowest of the low….. their perspectives would have had more force and meaning. Suyodhana, a blue blooded royal himself, comes across as hesitant, self-deprecating, unsure of himself, a lamb among the Pandava wolves – not a convincing picture if you have come across him in other retellings, and definitely not hero material, except perhaps when he takes a public stand and makes Karna a king. Neither does Suyodhana’s emphasis on merit versus inherited glory ring true; if he is such a believer in merit, why did he not leave the Hastinapur throne for the best among all the Kaurava and Pandava cousins?
Most glaringly, the one incident that gains the Pandavas most sympathy and establishes the Kauravas as villains – the disrobing of Draupadi in public – is not even described in the book! It is as if the author could find no excuse for the Kauravas and decided that the best thing was not to mention the incident at all.(Edit: In the comments below, readers have indignantly pointed out that the book ends before the incident, so clearly it will be explored in Part 2. However, I re-read the last couple of pages, and it still seems to me that the disrobing is happening “off-screen”. There is a mention of people being aghast and upset, but at what? I assume it is at the Vastraharan incident. We’ll know for sure when Part 2 comes out.)
What is sad is that the Mahabharata, as told in folklore, tribal stories, and other local versions all over India, has enough material to show a more nuanced view of the Kauravas on its own. It is not necessary to invent incidents, as the author does, to show the Kauravas in a more sympathetic light. This book, however, tried so hard to malign the Pandavas and show the Kauravas as gracious, charitable, sensitive men that it feels like one is reading propaganda, written by the Kauravas public relations team! A more balanced rendering would have felt much more convincing.
There are some sparks of innovation that held my interest. The incident where Arjuna, among all his classmates, is admired for his intense focus on his target – the parrot’s eye – is meant to glorify the quality of being single-minded in reaching one’s goal. Neelakantan admires the opposite quality instead – the quality of having a larger perspective, seeing the bigger picture and not being narrow-minded in attaining one’s goal. Suyodhana sees the parrot not as a target but as a living thing to be cherished – a beautiful thought. Similarly, Mayasura’s curse on Indraprastha (considered by some to be modern-day Delhi) – “You will always be ruled by the corrupt, women will fear to walk your streets…..” – is an intriguing idea.
Roll of the Dice from the Ajaya: Epic of the Kaurava Clan series was ultimately a disappointment. The writing was reasonably good, and made me wish that the author had just chosen to tell the Mahabharata in a more balanced, nuanced way, instead of picking any one side and championing their cause. For a more engaging and thought-provoking take on the Mahabharata, read Kurukshetra by Mahashweta Devi or Randamoozham by MT Vasudevan Nair instead. For those wanting to read a simple retelling of the popularly accepted version, Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik is a good start.